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Iraq Transition

White House: U.S. won't talk to Syria, Iran directly

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• NEW: Snow: Iran would have to halt uranium program to talk with U.S.
• Iran official: Open to critical regional talks on Iraq
• Forum to discuss Iraq will unite regional neighbors and others
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials won't hold direct talks with Iran or Syria at a Baghdad conference next month despite the Bush administration's complaints that those countries are allowing weapons into Iraq, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday.

Direct talks would happen only if those countries made changes to their own policies. Iran would have to halt its uranium enrichment work and Syria would have to stop supporting groups Washington considers terrorist organizations, Snow said.

"If between now and the 10th of March the Iranians suspended reprocessing and enrichment, then you'd have a different ballpark," he said. "If the Syrians had changed their attitude toward Hamas and Hezbollah, OK."

A top Iranian official said Wednesday that his country "will participate" in Iraq's neighbors' conference next month "if it will be of help to Baghdad," according to a state-run Iranian news service.

Although the Bush administration has long accused Iran and Syria of meddling in Iraq, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for direct talks with those countries.

During a Senate hearing Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates painted U.S. attendance at the conference as a step toward carrying out one of the study group's major recommendations.

U.S. military officials in Iraq have accused Iran of providing deadly armor-piercing explosives and mortar shells to Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, while the United States accuses Syria of allowing weapons and fighters to reach the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq across its border.

Both countries deny the allegations.

If concerns about the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq come up at the Iraqi-sponsored conference, "obviously we will address them," Snow said. "But there will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings."

Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy and held dozens of diplomats hostage for more than a year. But Snow said U.S. and Iranian officials have been "seated at the same table in multilateral negotiations" several times in the past few years, during aid conferences and in meetings at the United Nations.

However, he said, the Bush administration can't change policy while Iran is under a U.N. Security Council demand to halt its nuclear fuel program.

"It's important that people understand that this administration is serious when it comes to the Iranians about a precondition for bilateral negotiations and also for diplomatic relations, which is, they can't be working toward a nuclear weapon," he said.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for civilian power plants, but the United States accuses it of planning to develop a nuclear bomb. The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency reported last week that it cannot assure the Security Council that the Iranian work is only for peaceful purposes.

Iraqi officials announced the neighbors conference on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said attendance by the United States, Syria and Iran would be an ice-breaking diplomatic event that would pave the way to foster cooperative efforts to help Iraq.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has accepted an invitation to the conference.

Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani confirmed that Zebari has asked his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, to attend the conference, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Also on the guest list for the sub-ministerial talks are representatives of Iraq's Persian Gulf neighbors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; Jordan, Egypt and Turkey; the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which includes Russia, China, Britain, the United States and France; the United Nations, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The U.S. Embassy in Iraq said the initial meeting could be followed with another conference at the ministerial level.

Iranian official Ali Larijani confirms the Iranian ambassador to Iraq has been invited to the conference.


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